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No going back to packed workplaces after Covid-19

A recent project by IT service providers outlines how, in a post-coronavirus world, businesses like Barclays Bank will reduce their reliance on skyscrapers packed with people

Barclays Bank and IT services giant Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) have both publicly stated that their working practices will change permanently after the Covid-19 pandemic has passed.

Millions of workers across the world are currently operating from home as governments attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus through lockdowns, but this could become the norm.

Today, most office workers are used to using videoconferencing technology such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. They weren’t a few weeks ago, but lockdown has forced it upon them, with managers seeking quick fixes for remote working. 

Stanton Jones, director and principal analyst at ISG, recently said that organisations will have to be able to “engage customers and employees in both physical and digital worlds, and the ability to switch between them seamlessly as conditions warrant.”

Beyond Zoom

It goes way beyond enabling online face-to-face meetings, and even that requires significant work to make it commercial standard in terms of security and availability, for example.

Businesses are already getting ready for this new world. The CEO of one of the UK’s biggest banks has said packed skyscrapers in London’s Canary Wharf and other major cities will become a thing of the past, as organisations move to dispersed workforce models.

Jes Staley, CEO at Barclays Bank, which has 85,000 staff, said the company will change how it thinks about its locations. “The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” he said.

Meanwhile, India’s TCS said 75% of its 450,000 workers could work from home in the post-Covid-19 world. N Ganapathy Subramaniam, chief operating officer at TCS, said recently that the company is expecting to have only a quarter of its staff working from offices by 2025. “We don’t believe we need to have more than 25% of our workforce at our facilities in order to make all the 100% productive,” he added.

In India, where the vast majority of TCS staff work, an initial three-week lockdown was announced on 24 March and later extended until at least 3 May. The government told 1.3 billion people to stay at home.

IT services companies such as TCS carry out mission-critical work for organisations across the world, often from locations in India. The sudden inability of thousands of staff to access delivery centres would cause huge disruption for these customers.

Read more about coping with the lockdown

TCS already had a programme in place, known as the Secure Borderless Work Spaces (SBWS) framework, which enabled its staff to work from home regardless of whether they operated in back-office or customer-facing operations. The pandemic has triggered an acceleration of this project.

Before Covid-19 was identified as a global threat, TCS was planning for a future of remote working as part of its global delivery model. Just a couple of months ago, it had the capacity for 40% of its global staff to work from home, but since speeding up the project in reaction to Covid-19, it has quickly upped this to 90% – that’s 400,000 people.

Subramaniam said Covid-19 presented TCS with an operational challenge around scale, speed and complexity. “Although we have been the pioneers of the location-independent agile model, switching a long-established infrastructure model of an organisation of over 448,000 employees in a matter of days is pushing the boundaries,” he added.

“The outcome was that our SBWS framework has now enabled close to 90% of our employees to work remotely and securely.”

Another global IT supplier that is adapting to life under lockdown is IBM. The company said that in India, where hundreds of thousands of its staff are located, it had over 98% of its IT support practitioners working remotely within 48 hours of lockdown.

CEO Arvind Krishna said IBM services teams were operating “virtual garages”, explaining: “A garage used to be where we would have our consultants and our implementers sit side-by-side with our client. But when you have social distancing and it’s not just us, our clients don’t really want us on-premise either, they have now become virtual garages.”

Krishna said the advantage of working this way is that clients gain access to skills around the globe.

How TCS enables home working for 400,000 staff

To understand the challenges they might face, businesses can look to the work of companies such as TCS and IBM.

Amit Kapur, head of UK at TCS, told Computer Weekly that the project was initially to test the resilience of the company’s ability to work remotely using its dispersion model.

“What the pandemic did was that it forced a challenge and an opportunity to take this model into what now we are seeing as a dispersed model, but technologically coupled,” said Kapur.

He said TCS had a bit of a head-start compared to organisations in the West because Covid-19 began in Asia. “Of course, it originated from specific locations in Asia, which did give us early signals on the ability to act fast, act safely and start digging deep on what alternatives are possible to ensure services continuity,” he added.

Kapur said it was essential to ensure the project could be rolled out quickly, at scale and with agility. “It had to be driven through agility, because the pandemic response in different jurisdictions could be very different,” he added.

TCS also needed to adapt the deployment of SBWS in line with local law. The company’s staff, most whom are technology experts, have a device that must be mirrored with the image of the client they support. “If it’s a teacher’s internal engagement, mirrored with a teacher’s image, this ensures the security protocols on either side,” said Kapur. “So, the ability to link to an enterprise cloud, ability to link to a public cloud, ability to have internet-based infrastructure in place, all of those come together in a home environment.”

There are challenges on the customer side, on the employee side, and with local logistics, said Kapur. “On the customer side, it’s important to ensure that we have clear communication, and a clear understanding of this model being made effective,” he said.

“From an employee perspective, of course the enablement of infrastructure, through laptops, is of prime importance and ensuring that the employees are aware of the standard operating procedures to make it work.”

A remote future

Kapur said that through working with customers during the crisis, it is clear that they want to be able to use dispersed teams that are connected seamlessly through technology.

“There will definitely be a shift in the overall workplace transformation, within our customers’ as well our business,” he said. “While the SBWS project has been its own subset, we believe that the acceleration and momentum for that would be far, far higher going forward.”

Not only will the scale of remote working projects increase significantly, but also the speed at which they are rolled out, said Kapur. He cited one customer in the construction industry that, before Covid-19, was already engaged in a project to introduce Microsoft Teams to its business, in a project that was planned to take three months. It involved rolling out Teams to 2,000 people.

“This timescale was seen as aspirational, but once the pandemic kicked in, the entire programme of rolling out Teams into the organisation was done in 24 hours,” said Kapur. “So that’s the scale of change you will experience.”

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